TALLAHASSEE— Two convicted killers who were freed from prison by phony documents were captured together without incident Saturday night at a Panama City motel, authorities said.
Joseph Jenkins and Charles Walker, both 34, were taken into custody about 6:40 p.m. at the Coconut Grove Motor Inn. They were apprehended several hours after their family members held a news conference urging the men to turn themselves in.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement did not immediately release any other details about their capture or its investigation.
A woman who answered the phone at the motel said she saw police coming and they went into room 227. The woman, who didn’t want to give her name, said authorities didn’t stop by the office before they moved in.
Jenkins and Walker were both serving life sentences at the Franklin Correctional Facility in the Panhandle before they were released. The bogus paperwork, complete with case numbers and a judge’s forged signature, duped prison officials and reduced their sentences to 15 years.
Jenkins was released Sept. 27 and Walker was set free Oct. 8.
Family members and friends of the men said Saturday they initially thought their release was legitimate and spent time with them, planning a birthday party for one and going to church with the other.
Both men went to an Orlando jail after their release and registered as felons, as required by law. They filled out paperwork, had their photographs taken and were even fingerprinted. By doing this, authorities said they didn’t raise any alarms.
Henry Pearson, who is Jenkins’ uncle and father figure, said he brought Jenkins clothes when he picked him up from prison last month and drove him to see his mother and grandmother.
Pearson planned a birthday party at his home for Jenkins a few days later, but he never showed up. Pearson said he was completely shocked to learn Wednesday that Jenkins was not supposed to be out of prison.
He said he heard about the captures while watching TV and then a law enforcement agent called his home unexpectedly and let Jenkins talk to his wife.
“He just said that he was OK and that he loved us,” Pearson said. “We have a great sense of relief because we did not know how this would end up.”
Walker’s mother, Lillie Danzy, said the family thought their prayers had been answered when she got a call saying Walker was being released. There wasn’t time to pick him up, so he hopped a bus to central Florida.
Walker was at church last Sunday. His mother said they have been cooperating with authorities and made no attempts to hide him.
Before their capture, family members pleaded with the men to turn themselves in.
“We love you. We believe in you. We just want you to surrender yourself to someone you trust who will bring you back here safely. We don’t want any harm to come to you,” Danzy said.
The Orange County sheriff said Friday night that authorities believed the men were still in the central Florida area. It’s not clear how long they had been in Panama City, which is about 350 miles from Orlando.
Jenkins was found guilty of first-degree murder in the 1998 killing and botched robbery of Roscoe Pugh, an Orlando man. It was Pugh’s family that contacted the prosecutor’s office earlier this week and told them Jenkins had been released, setting off a manhunt.
The prosecutor’s office also discovered Walker had been mistakenly released. Walker was convicted of second-degree murder in the 1999 Orange County slaying of 23-year-old Cedric Slater.
There are still questions about who created the legitimate-looking documents that exposed gaps in Florida’s judicial system.
In light of the errors, the Corrections Department changed the way it verifies early releases and state legislators promised to hold investigative hearings.
The Corrections Department said on Friday it verified the early release by checking the Orange County Clerk of Court’s website and calling them.
Corrections Secretary Michael Crews sent a letter to judges saying prison officials will now verify with judges — and not just court clerks — before releasing prisoners early.
The state Department of Law Enforcement and the Department of Corrections are investigating the error, but so far have not released any details.